Wednesday, June 30, 2010

It’s easy to go on emotional autopilot
Stress for Success
June 29, 2010

It’s easy to block out painful emotions and operate emotionally on autopilot. Addictive behavior may be a warning sign that this is occurring habitually. To notice some emotions they might have to become extreme. But mindfulness stress management can allow you to face your emotions and not feel like you have to run from them.

According to Ronald Alexander, Ph.D. and author of “Wise Mind, Open Mind: Finding Purpose and Meaning in Times of Crisis, Loss and Change” handling stress mindfully helps you to be less reactive focusing on the big picture of a stressor. When automatically reacting to stressors you’re reacting out of your unconscious, which is largely programmed from early childhood. In other words, automatic, defensive reactions tend to be coming from your inner child. You’re also probably focusing on the details of the situation.

Alexander says, “The key to dealing with stressful situations, especially for those who take things personally, is to develop a deeply grounded core rudder so that no matter what size of wave one encounters they can recover quickly and proceed with more focus.” To remain grounded he recommends developing “mindstrength” through mindfulness meditation practice. “Mindstrength is the ability to easily and quickly shift from a reactive mode to becoming fully present in the moment, experiencing the full force of your emotions even as you recognize that they are temporary and will soon dissipate.”

He says mindfulness practices affect your brain’s amygdala, the area responsible for regulating emotions. When the amygdala is relaxed, your stress response is more balanced. Your:
* Heart rate lowers;
* Breathing deepens and slows;
* Body stops releasing cortisol and adrenaline into the bloodstream, decreasing the potential damage chronic stress places on your body;

Over time, mindfulness meditation, Alexander says, “thickens the region of the brain responsible for optimism and a sense of well-being. This area is also associated with creativity and an increased sense of curiosity, as well as the ability to be reflective and observe how your mind works.”

When in stressful situations he encourages you to answer these questions, taking your pulse of the here and now:
What do I feel right now?
Do these feelings benefit me in any way? If I feel anxious and fearful, do these emotions lead me to insights, or do they cause conflict, hold me back, and distract or weaken me?
If what I’m experiencing is in response to another person’s behavior, what’s the evidence that that person’s actions have little or nothing to do with me and are, instead, the result of what’s going on inside his/her own mind?
Can I depersonalize the situation?
How can I nourish myself at this difficult time?

Finally, Alexander says, “Mindfulness meditation and other disciplines such as martial arts, tai chi, and yoga are excellent ways of quieting the rational mind and opening up to the intuitive mind and its link to the spiritual creative force. Through this connection you can build “mindstrength,” stop reactivity, and focus on the big picture.” (

Jacquelyn Ferguson, M. S., is an international speaker and a Stress and Wellness Coach. Order her book, Let Your Body Win: Stress Management Plain & Simple, at Email her to request she speak to your organization at

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Mindfulness loosens grip of old resentment
Stop inappropriate defensive reaction
Stress for Success
June 15, 2010

Everyone has at least some childhood pain that’s triggered by present-day situations leaving you to misdiagnose the cause of your current stress. The setting off of these largely unconscious memories activates their associated emotions and typically a defensive reaction from you. And the stronger your pain the faster you react leaving potentially a millisecond between the triggering event and your habitual reaction to it. This is why it’s so difficult to change defensive behavior.

For example, your boss condescends to you and you verbally respond more aggressively than you want. Could the real problem be that your boss is simply triggering some unresolved childhood issue? If so, could identifying it loosen its grip on you?

Ask this revealing question to discover if your boss is truly your stress or if he’s triggering an earlier source:
* “Who or what from childhood could trigger this same reaction in me?”

Maybe your father was condescending. Now, as an adult, whenever an authority figure appears to talk down to you your instantaneous, aggressive reaction pops out.

To break outdated and needless reactions become more mindful of what’s going on before, during and after the triggering event and expand the “space of time” between the event and your reaction to it. Eventually you can reduce the intensity, duration and frequency of automatic reactions and respond in a more thoughtful and desirable way.

Here’s how to start:
1. Bring your attention to the present moment, particularly to your breathing; in and out, in and out. At first this may not stop your defensive pattern. Eventually, paying attention to your breathing allows you to observe your unhealthy pattern and ultimately to catch yourself becoming emotionally hooked. Then you’ll be closer to changing your response.
2. Non-judgmentally witnessing your habitual, unproductive reactions helps avoid adding more emotional fuel to the fire. Consistently, over and over bring your drifting attention back to your breathing. Instead of criticizing yourself for getting defensive with your boss simply acknowledge that you sometimes respond to him this way. Notice what he does that triggers you (his derisiveness), your aggressive response, followed by fear that you’ve overstepped the line, then worry that he’ll punish you someday. After one of these episodes set aside contemplative time to observe the unpleasant emotions and physical sensations triggered earlier. Be mindful of these. Observe your thoughts, feelings and fight or flight reactions that exacerbate your stress.
3. Reduce the intensity of your automatic reactions by nipping them in the bud to prevent full development of overwhelming emotions. There’s an opportunity within the first seconds of recognizing your habitual reaction to prevent further escalation. Break these mind/body chain reactions to stop the process. Remember, the less you judge yourself - or him - the less intense your feelings become. Don’t accept nor condemn your emotions, just observe them for what they are, habitual, immature and unhelpful, albeit normal.

Since thoughts determine your emotions next week we’ll look at how mindfulness can help you quiet and calm your mind.

Jacquelyn Ferguson, M. S., is an international speaker and a Stress and Wellness Coach. Order her book, Let Your Body Win: Stress Management Plain & Simple, at Email her to request she speak to your organization at

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Get off autopilot; kick the past out of the present
Stress for Success
June 8, 2010

It’s disappointing when you habitually react defensively to your critical boss, a dominating parent or whomever. You swear you won’t let him or her get under your skin then, bam! It happens again. Why can’t you get control over yourself?

Many conflicts have less to do with the person in front of you whom you assume is causing your distress and far more to do with this person triggering a painful memory from your past usually involving an important person you believe hurt you. You project onto the present situation your past fears. Practicing mindfulness can help you break your historic patterns even in the midst of difficult emotions.

Meditation teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as, “Paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”
* Paying attention: We typically operate on automatic pilot rather than paying conscious attention to the present moment and our place in it. You think of other things, worry about what might happen and react
rather than respond to unfolding events. You’re especially vulnerable to over-reacting when you’re stressed.
* On purpose: Paying attention to what’s happening in this moment requires conscious effort and is the opposite of operating on automatic pilot.
* In the present moment: Versus difficult emotions from your past being triggered pulling you back to habitual reactions.
* Non-judgmentally: Unwelcome situations tend to trigger negative and judgmental assumptions. “You’re unfair!” You instantly judge the situation, others or yourself creating more distress and conflict. Negative judgments imply a certain outcome you desire. “You should be fair.” Too often what you want is for the other person to change. But they’re beyond your control. Non-judgmental mindfulness allows you to see situations more clearly and to evaluate them from an emotional distance thereby dropping your judgment. You observe your emotions and reactions as they arise without trying to control them. Eventually mindfulness allows you to see a typical stressor as less of a big deal and more as a passing, unwanted experience.

Consistently practicing mindfulness, especially when stressed, is difficult but it can bring significant relief and freedom from old, painful patterns.

Mindfulness is not:
* Detaching from experiences nor disengaging emotionally from life. You don’t become indifferent nor lose your enthusiasm. Mindfulness encourages engaging more completely rather than reacting out of habitual patterns.
* Submissively accepting whatever happens. You won’t lie down and play dead in the face of conflict. Non-judgmental mindfulness allows you to respond to difficult situations with understanding and attention rather than habit, impulse or addiction.
* A miracle cure for all that’s wrong.

Mindfulness is an internal strength that can be developed to surmount hurt and pain and grant you greater freedom from your past. It helps you break habitual and defensive life patterns, which can allow you to establish better relationships and increase your kindness toward yourself and others.

Nature, meditation, deep breathing, etc. can help you become more mindful. Next week we’ll continue looking at its benefits and how to develop it.

Jacquelyn Ferguson, M. S., is an international speaker and a Stress and Wellness Coach. Order her book, Let Your Body Win: Stress Management Plain & Simple, at Email her to request she speak to your organization at